H. Richard Niebuhr, Is-ness, and McDonalds

DISCLAIMER: The world is full of cultures. Each is unique, each is beautiful, and each is flawed. I use the word “culture” not to describe a particular culture, but to talk about culture as an abstract concept. The futility of such an endeavor is that I write about culture from within my culture, and therefore my understanding of culture is shaped by my culture…and the spiral continues.

H. Richard Niebuhr famously published a book titled Christ and Culture. In that book he outlines what he believes to be the dominant models that churches use when “engaging” culture. He would be the first to acknowledge that the categories that he identifies are not static, and there is a wide spectrum of practice.

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amazon.com

Niebuhr, and a great many besides him, have held the belief that churches “engage” culture. There are churches that “embrace” culture, churches that “reject” culture, churches that “change” culture and on and on. This line of thinking is deeply flawed. It is flawed, because it assumes that culture is other than ourselves. One can interact with it and set it down and walk away from it or whatever, but it is fundamentally other.

Culture, however, is not other…it simply is.

This is-ness is inseparable from us. If you are reading this, then you are familiar with the English language, and you have the cultural assumption that arbitrary phonemes that are represented by arbitrary abstract characters actually refer to the real world, or to abstract ideas.

At a deeper level, the way we understand what it means to be alive, what it means to be successful, what it means to be happy and on and on are all cultural constructs, and yet they seem as natural as 1+1=2. There are paradigmatic narratives that tell us who we are, why we are here, and what is that we ought to do. These narratives are constructs of culture and yet they seemed hardwired into our DNA.

The difficulty with language, which is similarly the difference with culture, is that one has to define terms in terms of terms. It becomes a twisted hall of mirrors where one is bound by the conventions of language to describe language. Unlike other inquiries, we cannot get outside of it to look back on it. Culture functions the same way. The existence of words like “culture” and “paradigm” does not give us power to stand outside of it and judge it objectively. We are bound by the language (in the most liberal sense of language) of culture to describe culture.

All that to say, one does not engage culture, one is culture.

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google search

Culture is like oxygen. Not only is it ever-present and a natural part of our existence, but it is also most noticeable when it is gone. I never think about breathing, but when I am underwater, breathing is all I can think about. Similarly culture is most noticeable when the is-ness of one’s culture is absent and one is presented with the is-ness of another culture.

I have had several American friends who will wax poetic about their dislike of McDonalds. They loathe its employment practices, means of production, and its non-existent health benefits. Yet, these same friends have traveled to non-western cultures and many of them, upon their return, describe how thankful they were for McDonalds franchises in the countries they visited. The inevitable refrain is that McDonalds, “tastes like home.”

I raise this, because there is no objectivity to culture. No culture is superior to others. Culture simply is. As a Christian, I have often heard sermons about “the world” or how Facebook is ruining us, or how the latest x, y, or z is going to ruin everything. All of these sermons are essentially sermons about fear. They are about the fear of change. The sentiment that is being communicated is, “we had a place in the old way of things, but if things change or position will seem less stable or less essential.”

I think this is counterproductive.

If culture is, and that is-ness is an integral part of people making up congregations, then by extension culture is within church. Churches do not step outside of it when they worship, because it is already there waiting for them.

I do not think that fear is what should characterize churches. A fear of culture is really a fear of each other and a fear about life itself. The posture of Christianity is love. Love is expansive and imaginative. Love acknowledges and honors the past, but it also trusts that the future will not lead to destruction. Love asks a different set of questions than fear. Love does not ask, “how will this ______ ruin me.” It looks upon that which is coming into being and asks, “what might my beloved be up to, and how can I be a part of it?”

The Liberation of Lament

Thoughts on Dr. Soong-Chan Rah’s The Necessity of Lament for Ministry in the Urban Context

“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.” –Lamentations 1:1

The aftermath of destruction nearly escapes words. This poet can only use metaphor to capture the horror of destruction that has befallen the city of Jerusalem.  For centuries she has been a city of hope, of kings, and a sign of God’s promises to his people. Now, however, the city has been razed, and its inhabitants scattered, or carried off to captivity in Babylon.

So begins the book of Lamentations.  This is not the whole of the story, because this story goes back much further. It is a story about a God that chose a people to represent him. These people were to be faithful to their God, shunning evil and caring for the widows, orphans, and the oppressed. Their call was to be a city on a hill. Lofty aspirations and miraculous encounters with the divine quickly gave way to violence, corruption, and a military industrial complex bent only on its own security and conquest. Bricks that had been laid with hopes and promises, eventually came to symbolized a city rotting from the inside out. Corrupt kings killed the prophets of Israel, and made deals with corrupt governments.

And when this nation could no longer win in the game of military might, its enemies rose up against it and crushed it, laying the foundations of the city bare.

The destruction of Jerusalem, while tragic, exposed what had been percolating beneath the surface for generations. What had begun as a city became a prison of injustice. When the walls came down, so did the system that had perpetuated it. No longer would citizens have to live as if nothing was wrong, while the stench of oppression rose around them. The city had been found out, and though it would take time, the destruction gave way to freedom and a chance to rebuild.

In contemporary North American Christianity, narratives of triumph, conquest, and victory have become slogans and mission statements reflecting the church’s view of its own self importance. Yet, in the church’s midst, suffering, corruption, racism, sexism and more can be found on every urban block, and in every rural town. There is a treacherous mingling of cross and flag, that has confused party politics and national propaganda for the gospel.

If this church does not learn to lament, and admit that its members, privately and corporately, have missed God’s call and veered off course, then this church will not be free. It will be bound up in the same schemes and abuse that reinforced the walls of ancient Jerusalem. If there is no honesty, and no lament, there will be little room for redemption, because too much time and energy will be spent propping up the myths of success, triumph, and victory.

These narratives are deeply troubling. A movement founded by an ancient Jewish rabbi that embodied strength in weakness, leadership through being a servant, and offered hope in his broken body and shed blood, has been co-opted. At some point being “perfect” or “right” became more important than testifying to humanities equal status before the cross of Christ: broken and in need of grace and healing. Not only did Jesus upset the power dynamics of his day, and continues to do so in our day, he also showed that God stands in solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized. God has little use for triumph. He has great use, however, for lament, repentance, and commitment to loving the perpetual “other.”

Urban centers are already, and will continue to be the home of the majority of humanity. Increased population density, and inadequate infrastructure present new challenges. The gospel, which has previously been interpreted by rural western thinkers, is being reinterpreted by non-western, non-male, urban dwellers. The implications of this are profound, and the innovations and fresh insights are bound to be exhilarating.

The hindrance to this new phase of human history is the cultural captivity of Christianity, embodied in the narrative of victory, triumph and success. If churches do not learn to acknowledge and lament that they are complicit not only in the problems of the world, but also the cultural captivity of the ever expansive gospel of Jesus Christ, then they may find themselves bound in circular culture wars that will be to everyone’s detriment, and get in the way of broken people testifying to their own brokenness and their deep need for the healing that only God can provide, and the kind of liberation that can only be found in lament.

Villainy: Commentary on Chuck Klosterman and the book of Ruth

“Writing about other people is a form of writing about oneself.”

-Chuck Klosterman

Whatever the content of whatever conversation may be, the real conversation is about self disclosure, and that is all there is. I cannot tell someone about how I perceive God without necessarily telling them about who I am, how I perceive truth, what my views on authority, family, government, and so on are. I am bound by my perception, and I would argue (though this is not 100% my belief) that the underlying question of any conversation is: am I normal?Image

In the United States, our government functions as a democracy. We have decided that the majority opinion will dictate normative behavior. People argue, debate, and run slur campaigns all trying to prick that nerve inside of us that will turn on one of them. With our vote we will say that one candidate’s views are more normal or better than the other. Even in this act however, we are not interacting with some objective normalcy that can be measured in a lab, we are more likely using words like “good” or “true” as terms that express a relationship to the views that we already hold. This candidate is “good” because they agree with me.

These values may be less about healthcare, or racial reconciliation, or justice (though I hope they are), and more about being seen as a certain kind of person. There is a narrative that I have that tells me who I am. In this narrative of my life, of which I am the main character, I am a social reformer that would have marched with Dr. King, or would have happily worked alongside Mother Theresa with lepers. I am loving and accepting of all, and I would never, under any circumstance, judge anyone.

So, when we talk about anything, to anyone what we’re really doing is smoke screening some form of content that is meant to divert attention away from my real purpose, which is to trot out the narrative of myself and see if you will buy into it with me.

I think this is fascinating.

This is even more fascinating depending on the content of the smoke screen, especially (to me) when we’re talking about the Bible.

For instance, the book of Ruth:

Ruth is a story about two widows, Naomi and Ruth (who is also an alien in the land of Israel). These women live in a patriarchal society where they have no legal rights and are essentially property. Without a husband they are hopeless and have no means of providing for themselves other than picking grain from the fields that is left by field workers. After working for a time in the fields of a man named Boaz (who is apparently a relative of some kind, though it is never spelled out), Naomi, the mother in law of Ruth, hatches a plan to get Boaz, or at least to remind him, that he has a responsibility to look after his relatives estate, which includes Ruth and Naomi. Here is her plan:

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bible-archaeology.info

Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.” (Ruth 3:1-5 NRSV).

This is clearly proof that romance novels are totally derivative.

This passage is laden with innuendo both in the original Hebrew, and much of it comes through in the English translation as well. Regardless about where one lands on the incident at the threshing room floor, the conversation around it reveals more.

I have been in situations where I have read the book of Ruth, and folks skim past the premise of the book, namely two widows, one of whom is an alien, that are forced into a situation where the system has no resources for them (a pretty clear image of systemic oppression), but get hung up on whether or not Boaz was drunk, or whether or not Ruth and Boaz had sex. Hmmmm…

If my premise is true that all one can do is self disclose, then it would appear that systemic injustice, while unfortunate, is not a big deal so long as people “do the right thing,” but sex and drinking are the most depraved offenses.

As a Christian I have a certain narrative I tell myself about who I am, and about the Bible says. So, a story about two desperate widows that may have employed sex to survive really messes up that narrative. Bible characters are supposed to be monolithic paradigms of purity. This story is disturbing because it messes up my narrative and brings to the surface the toxic fumes that I have inhaled about alcohol and sex.

One commentator I read said that if Ruth had sex with Boaz then the rest of the story is ruined, and Ruth is not a woman of character. Really?! To me this reeks of an interpretation that is more in service of this particular commentators views on sex than about the text of Ruth. This scholar, apparently believes that sex is simple and lacking in complexity and can be viewed in a binary fashion where it is either good or bad. This potential example falls into the latter category.

Is it really Ruth’s fault that she has to work within an unjust system, and for the sake of survival has to use one of the only resources available to her to save her life and the life of her mother in law?

Such interpretations can have tragic consequences, when people are beat up by one person’s limited understanding of sexuality and they make complex issues black and white.

An interpretation where the scandal of Ruth is the threshing room floor exposes that I see sex as a way of exerting power, not gaining it. I am privileged enough that I do not worry about where my next meal is coming from. I cannot conceive of a universe where difficult circumstance will make me put myself in such a vulnerable situation to save myself and others. My privilege allows me to ignore systemic oppression, because I am the direct beneficiary of an unjust system. From my perch on top of the world, I feel entitled to look down on people in difficult circumstance I cannot even imagine and tell them how wrong or immoral, or dysfunctional they are.

This is where it all comes full circle. In the narrative we create of ourselves, like the one Imagethat I create about myself, I have to/ I need to be the protagonist. In order for me to remain the protagonist, I need to create villains. I will allow people to be crushed by my interpretation of a very old book, so that I come out looking like the good guy. There has to be an other that I can draw contrast to. However, in doing so, I may be actualizing my greatest fear, which is that in the narrative of my life I am actually the villain.

In his book I Wear the Black Hat Chuck Klosterman concludes with this, “I never feel weird about being the main character in the nontransferable, nonexistent movie of my life. That’s totally fine. What makes me nervous is a growing suspicion that this movie is Image[messed] up and devoid of meaning. The auteur is a nihilist. What if I’m the main character, but still not the protagonist? What if there is not protagonist? What if there’s just an uninteresting person, thinking about himself because there’s nothing else to think about?”

The anxiety that Klosterman is articulating is at the heart of my desire to create villains. I think it is safe to say that the world is multifaceted. There is layer upon layer of meaning and mystery. As a Christian I need to learn to love and create from this place. Interpretations of scripture and interactions with people cannot be in service of my lazy desire for a simpler universe.

God and My New Favorite Album

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(wearetyphoon.com their music will knock your socks off!)

 One perk of going to seminary is that you get to talk about God a lot. I go to class and talk about God, I come home and talk to my roommates (both seminary grads) and talk about God, I meet new people and when they hear that I’m in seminary, we talk about God.

I’m sure I am not alone in this observation, but often when religion or some synonym thereof is the topic of conversation, there are potentially infinite other conversations going on simultaneously. Are we talking about God or your relationship with your family? Are we talking about God or are we talking about our conception of authority? Is this really a discussion about my own sense of failure and my use of the term “God” is really just my projection of my idealized self? When we say “kingdom of God” do we actually mean “America”?

God becomes a placeholder for any number of more personal or more abstract topics of interest.

What is really interesting to me in these conversations is when a subject comes up that someone won’t budge on. Someone recently said, “I’m fine questioning a number of things, but just don’t question the Trinity.”

The Trinity? Really?

The question that always pops into my head is, “what about those questions terrify you?” what is it about certain questions that terrify me?

Hypothetically, if Christianity is way wrong about the Trinity, what would change? How would the world, the empirical universe, be different?

The fascinating part to me is how this plays out. It’s not just that some questions terrify people, but how that fear informs practice.

I know I have had experiences where I realize that what is being said to me, or better yet, what I am saying about God feels less like witness and more like: I’m terrified that this is not true, but if you believe it, then it will feel more real. Or maybe it’s more like this: I need to convince you, because I need to convince myself.

I think this is a boring game. It’s boring, because it is only as real as we say it is. If at any point someone questions the game, or questions any of the rules, the game is up, or people get hostile.

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(shamelessly stole this from google)

I want to talk about God, like I talk about my new favorite album.

I have a bit of a compulsion, but I love indie music, I love hearing music before anyone else. I have joked that my music is so indie and so cool that I listen to songs that haven’t even been written yet. I love the experience of going to the iTunes store (support musicians, support art folks…don’t steal it’s not cool!) and downloading a new album, putting my headphones in and getting lost in an album.

I listen to it from start to finish, playing my favorite songs a few times through and just enjoying the art that people have created. I try to identify all the instruments that I hear, wondering about what influence the band has, why they made the choices they did, what is the message of the album, what is the story that is being told, or if I was to make a film with just this album how would I do it, what do I see, how does this album capture certain emotions…and on…and on…

The best part of new music though, is sharing it.

Taking the headphones out and plugging the music into the loud speakers, the ones with the good bass, and watching as other people encounter music for the first time. It is always interesting to see how people react and how the album intersects with their life.

Sometimes I play music and the folks I’m sharing it with love it. Other times they remain neutral, or they hate it. Whatever the outcome, it’s still my new favorite album.

They can shred it and tell me it’s derivative, or that my musical tastes are lame, and we can argue and they can sing it’s praises and tell me how brilliant and refined my tastes are, or whatever, but it’s still my new favorite album.

Whatever their response is, I enjoy it, and that’s enough for me.

I want to talk about God like I talk about my new favorite album. I play my favorite songs, or Bible stories, or personal stories and listen for all of the instruments, I wrestle with the parts of God and life that do not make sense, but at the end of the day, it’s still my favorite album.

I have personal joy in playing it, and in sharing it, but there’s no fear. No worry that if I share it someone will hate it. The joy is in the sharing, not in their response. If they love it, now you get to share it, but if they don’t it doesn’t make my experiences any less valid.

I don’t think drawing lines in the sand and not budging on certain topics is interesting. What I do find interesting is someone telling me how their belief in the Trinity makes the world a more holy place. I find it thrilling when someone tells me about how they finally stopped running from their past and their demons and finally faced them…and lived, which sounds oddly like a first century Jewish Revolutionary that took on the cross and burst out of a tomb three days later. I cannot get enough of people telling me how they discovered that they can be who they really are and God loves that.

It’s a bit like they’re sharing their new favorite album.

Here it is. Listen to it, discover, enjoy, wonder, question.

No fear, just joy in experiencing and sharing.

The Gospel of “That Just Happened”

ImageThere is a story told about Jesus and a few of his followers. He has been healing and making pronouncements, calming storms and feeding thousand, and then he takes a few of his disciples up on a mountain, at which point he begins to pray only to be transformed into an appearance that can only be likened to lightning and his friends Moses and Elijah show up for the occasion.

(insert record scratch)

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For me this story appears to serve no purpose. I have already suspended a lot disbelief, I’ve gone along with the miracles and enigmatic statements, but this story is beyond belief.

Peter, the only disciple inspired to say something, is like, “uhhhh…should we build some shelters for these guys?” Peter seems to think one of two things: either he is spectacularly practical and he believes that perhaps weather will come upon them and they will need shelter, or perhaps Jesus will stay there forever with Moses and Elijah and perhaps people will want to come see them…sort of like a sight seeing exhibit…only with lightning.

Its at this point that a cloud shows up, a voice speaks about Jesus being God’s son, and then its over.

The hilarious moment in this story is the disciples reaction. At first it sounds like an act of humility: “The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen,” however, I would argue that they kept it to themselves because people would ask them what kind of drugs they were on…probably assuming they were good ones.

Its interesting that the story describes Jesus’ appearance as “lightning.”

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Lightning is fast.

Lightning moves at the speed of light.

Between 1907 and 1915 Einstein developed the theory of relativity. Up to this point people thought that speed could be measured, the universe functioned according to very linear systems. Einstein starts saying stuff like space is curved and starts to offer brand new ideas about the paradoxes of the universe.

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Unlike a car, or a person walking, you cannot “measure” the speed of light in a conventional way, because light always moves at the speed of light. No matter how fast you move or whatever, light will always be coming at you at the same speed: the speed of light. Whether it’s the lamp in a room, or the light emitted by dead stars a few galaxies over, light moves at a constant speed, and it is relentless.

Perhaps I fail to understand the nuances of light, but light and the way it functions blows a huge hole in the way one understands the universe. It is nearly impossible to understand in terms of conventional language.

As crazy as light is, maybe it tells us more about the universe than Einstein intended it to: the difference between chronos and kairos.

 

Every bit of life is divided into sequences of time: chronos. It’s seconds, minutes, hours, days…millennia etc. Chronos may be intangible, but we can feel it. The pressure of a deadline, or when someone you love only has a few moments left. So much stress and anxiety is directly the result of the intangible yet ever present chronos. And yet, this measure of time is inadequate.

There is another greek term for time: kairos. Kairos is not about quantity, it is about a quality of time. Kairos happens when you lose track of time. It happens when you get lost in a conversation with a dear friend, or with someone you love, kairos sneaks up on you when you get lost in nature, or in your passion for life or art, or family.

Kairos is God’s time.

It is a kind of time that transcends time. It not a time that measure how long you have been a live, it measures whether or not you have really lived.

It would be absurd to ask questions like, “what speed is that painting?” because art does not exist in the realm of chronos, it is in the reality of kairos.

How long were your child’s first steps?

How deep is a sunset?

What speed does love or grace move at?

The answer is kairos.

On the mountain with Jesus, the disciples do not know what they saw. Maybe it happened in a flash and it was over, or maybe it lasted for a while, but what they saw appeared as lightning, or was it the speed of light…or was it that for a brief moment they stepped out of chronos and into kairos and into the realm of God.

Perhaps it is no wonder they didn’t tell anyone, and perhaps it wasn’t fear, or ignorance, but awareness that whatever they just saw it was to be treasured.

It is interesting to me that one of the ways the Bible talks about sin is business. There are a lot of verbs about sin. Maybe a way to understand this is that sin is moving so fast that we fail to slow down long enough to touch, taste, hear, or feel the kairos that is around us all the time. Maybe sin is not engaging in some activity we shouldn’t, but rather, missing out on the miracles that are perpetually happening right under our nose.

Is it possible that the life God has for us is not busy but present?

Is it possible that instead of measuring, quantifying, and planning the life God has for us is one of wonder?

I wonder, if I can learn to see the world in this way, a world filled with kairos, if I will be forced to stand in awe and see the lightning and declare, “that just happened…wow!”

The Axis of Evil in Me

There are few moments that are truly capable of resizing a person. Death is the main force that cuts people down to size. It is inevitable, and the only guarantee in life. As many have pointed out before, we often live as though death is a myth. We exercise, wear deodorant and make up, pretending that we can stall aging, we can elude death, but when we are faced with tragedy we are all brought back down to the hard and indiscriminant truth that death will find us all.

 

I am filled with a number of impulses when I hear about a tragic news story. The first is shock. The second is denial.

 

I am shocked at the depravity of the world. I find myself speechless that people are capable of such evil and such violence towards each other. Language has no claims in the land of grief. Words seem too light and too insensitive to begin to address the heart ache that grips me in the face of tragedy. There is no kernel of wisdom or rationale that can makes sense of what has happened. Whenever I stand near a casket, or learn of a fatal illness, or hear about a mass shooting I am filled with static and unable to move forward. I sit motionless glued to sources of information that wash over me with the incessant message that an unspeakable evil has just happened…it really happened…it really happened. I once lived in a world where this tragic event had not just happened, and now I live in a world where it has and I simply cannot imagine that I will learn to accept that such evil is possible, and so I sit and listen to the news reports as they try to convince me that tragedy has truly just happened, but I am overwhelmed with horror and grief and shock that moves towards denial.

 

Denial, at first glance, is manifest in my desire to pull the covers over my head and plug my ears and pretend that the evil in the world is not real. This, however, is quickly replaced by deeper self reflection. As I listen to the news reports I want to join in and disassociate and externalize evil. Evil is out there, it’s a lone gunman, it is in a foreign land, it looks different than me, speaks a different language, and it operates without rationale and is one dimensionally bent against all of us, the good people. I want to blame parents, and video games, or the internet…but I have to wonder if these are just tools of denial. Tools that help me deny the violence within my own heart. They deny the violent world and culture that I participate in every day. I want to point to the evil out there, because I don’t want to point to the evil in here. I can scapegoat everything that influences people, because I want to deny that evil is in the posture of the human heart.

 

Who has not stood back and looked at their own actions and been shocked by the destructive potential they hold in their hands?

 

Who has not spoken unbelievable evil towards their enemies?

 

In the midst of tragedy, which I cannot control, I reflect on what I can control. Myself. Are there ways where I am contributing to the fear and violence mongering that floods the world? How are my own hands and heart stained with evil? I am moved to repent.

 

In the season of Advent, when light comes in to the world, I cannot help but stop and notice the profound darkness in the world and in myself. I cannot help but recognize the perpetual need for the saving light and love and justice of Jesus that I need and that we all need.

 

God, forgive me for neglecting love and choosing fear and violence. Save us from the pain we continue to inflict upon each other. Comfort those who are hurting, and fill us with a hope that is deeply aware of brokenness and yet anticipates healing. Amen.

Hate, Fear, and Homo Phobias: The Queer Case of Hating Queers

by Erik Meddles

Growing up queer[1] involves growing up with fear. These fears can and do vary depending on one’s nationality, social status, cultural group, and individual personality. But fear is always there. The vast majority of queer people hide their identities for at least some part of their lives for a variety of different concerns. People fear that they will not be accepted by their friends and family. They fear that they will be subject to taunting, teasing, and slurs based upon popular stereotypes. They fear what will happen to their previous identities if they attach themselves to groups that have developed their own dominant cultures. These fears are not relegated to those who have yet to come out. Violence against queers is still a very real danger in most parts of the world, by no means excluding the decidedly more progressive “West.”[2] The torture and murder of Matthew Shepard, a young man targeted for his sexuality, in Wyoming in 1998 is but one of the best known cases of violence against homosexuals in the United States. In many other countries homosexuality is illegal, punishable by fines, incarceration, public forms of humiliation, and execution. Queers fear other forms of legal discrimination throughout the world, notably in the realm of family rights and economic status. Homosexual marriage and the adoption of children by homosexual couples is not recognized in most parts of the world and sexual orientation is one of the few categories of discrimination not protected by labor laws in many U.S. states. Even those most steeled against concerns for themselves are certainly fearful of the way these legal discriminations can affect their loved ones, whether through workplace discrimination, the denial of hospital visitation rights, or the discrimination that their children might inherit for having a queer parent. Fear is part of queer life.

            Yet fear is not the unique possession of queer people subject to discrimination. The term used for discrimination against queers is homophobia. Deriving from the Greek word phóbos, the term describes hatred and aversion but also intense fear. In fact, most other modern uses of the term phobia derive from a psychological understanding of intense (and sometimes irrational) fears, such as claustrophobia (a fear of confined spaces) or agoraphobia (a fear of the outside world). This dominant psychological connotation on our language makes the choice of the term homophobia appear to be an odd one. And yet at the heart of this ambiguity between hatred and fear lies clarity; hate and fear are linked, they feed each other, and they provoke each other.

            A gay character on the web series The Outs states the apparent contradiction well when he says “You know, homophobia gets a bad rap, but what it means is people being afraid of homos. And I know I would feel a lot safer walking home alone at night in Charlotte, North Carolina if more people were afraid of me.”[3] While in the grips of one’s own fears it is difficult to see how he or she could provoke fear in someone else. Yet queer relationships, actions, and comportments can be anxiety inducing for many heterosexual people throughout the world. One of the main reasons for this is that queer behavior stands outside of the traditional, binary divide between genders. Most human cultures make gender distinctions between members of the two sexes and relegate them to well defined roles that prescribe set occupations, modes of dress, leisure preferences, mental capacities, language usage, vocal quality, etc. These roles, while distinct in different cultures, can be rigid and viewed as an essential aspect of group formation and identity. But queer behavior, often by the nature of its existence, draws this strict binary in to question. If men are supposed to be naturally assertive or aggressive to their passive partner, how can a gay couple hope to have both partners meet that ideal? Since a strict gender binary does not allow them to do so, one is forced to loosen the binary to include them, eliminate the binary, or exclude them. Since this gender construction creates a sense of order and comfort, challenges to that order can be disquieting for some.

            Another major way that queer behavior provokes fear is its treatment by major religions. Practitioners of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have all been historically hostile to queers, citing their religious texts and the guidance of spiritual leaders as a rationale for their opposition. Even those faithful people who claim to have no personal dislike for queers often maintain that they cannot support homosexuality because their religion forbids it and views it as a shameful form of human activity.[4] Still others believe that, although perpetrated by queers, the perceived transgressions against religion includes them (and all of society) in the ultimate divine judgment of these acts. The host of the television show The 700 Club, Pat Robertson has even gone to the lengths of claiming that the practice of homosexuality in the United States (along with other perceived social ills) served as the basis for divine punishment via the September 11th terrorist attacks. The zealot’s distaste for queers grows in to a fear of them which in turn may be extended to hatred. This hatred can lead down a path of dehumanization of, and violence against, queers. Surely the path to violence is rare and extreme, but the extreme is always possible when living with extreme emotions such as fear and hate.

            Queers, as a group, are not responsible for inciting these fears and they should not be held to higher moral standards as representatives of their community in order to assuage these fears. Queers are human beings and are just as perfect and flawed as a group as any other group of humans is capable of being. Understanding the way that homophobia is constructed and recognizing that it is rooted in fear, however, is an essential step in confronting this hatred. Certainly hatred towards queers is irrational and flawed as a position, but so have all forms of discrimination throughout history. The phantasms of fear echo through hatred of groups throughout history. Medieval Christians feared that Jews were responsible for poisoning communal drinking wells, 19th Century Europeans feared the economic expansion of Asians as the arrival of the “yellow peril,” frontiersmen and women filled journals with their anxieties of the “savagery” of Native Americans, and 20th century men feared what would happen if they opened the electoral franchise to supposedly emotional and irrational women. In all of these instances reactionary policies were drafted in order to maintain the binaries of their time (racial and gendered) and arguments from the Bible were used to resist seeing past superficial differences for the shared humanity within. And in all of these instances discrimination has ceased to be dominant only when love has been encouraged over fear. Interracial marriage continues to grow in the United States and women are more visible in positions of power than they have ever been in the past.

            The more that we openly love and respect those who are different from us the harder it is to maintain the misguided binaries that keep us a part. For the scant few times that the Bible supposedly castigates homosexuality, or women, or blacks, or Jews it evokes love ten times more. Love strengthens us against fear when we are in our most desperate moments, and it can be used to dissolve anger and fear to outsiders. Queers today use love and pride as a way of resisting the fear that comes with living in the society that we live in today, and it shields and comforts us. Our response to homophobia should change to fit this understanding. When confronted with a homophobic statement we should ask, “What are you afraid of?” because this fear is at the heart of the homophobe’s anger and aggression. Homophobes will likely deny being afraid of anything in the moment, but if for one instance they seriously reflect on their anger they may realize how much fear is a part of their lives as well.

Erik Meddles (25) is a Colorado native who graduated from Regis University in 2010 with a BA in French and History. He received his MA in French Studies from New York University in 2011 and is currently enrolled in a joint PhD program with New York University between French Studies and History. He is primarily interested in the histories of empires, race, and communal identity formation.


[1] I choose to use the term queer as an all-encompassing grouping of all members of LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) community.

[2] The Human Rights Campaign has good resources for tracking rights for the LGBTQ community. The following link lists the legislation in existence in each US state to prevent hate crimes, http://www.hrc.org/resources/entry/state-laws-policies.

[3] The Outs.Episode no. 3 “Moon River”, directed and written by Adam Goldman,  http://theouts.squarespace.com/watch/ .

[4] The recent documentary Fish Out of Water interviews theological scholars and practicing preachers regarding the instances in the Bible that mention homosexuality and questions the interpretation of a negative perception of homosexuality within. Fish Out of Water. DVD. Directed by Ky Dickens. Chicago, IL: Yellow Wing Productions, 2009.